A couple of weeks ago, I posted an entry ‘Bridging The Future – Chennai Metro Rail Project,’ trying to illustrate how large-scale construction projects build the foundation of the countries on the growth stage. Isn’t it great to have modern infrastructure made of steel and concrete, which also provides more work to the local economy?
Then, a few days ago, I found an article on the Japanese news site saying that Tokyo Metro Expressway needs $12B to repair its old bridges. Oops.
Tokyo – 50 Years Later
The spiderwebbed highway network in Tokyo was developed in 60’s and 70’s, when Japan was on the growth stage. 50 years later, however, the steel has rusted and the concrete has cracked. They are in urgent need for repair. In Japan, an earthquake country, it is important to maintain a good condition of any standing objects. Repairing the old infrastructure costs a lot of money, which the already debt-laden Japanese economy cannot easily afford. The estimated cost to repair the Tokyo Metro Expressway only is $12B. It requires a hundred times more to fix Japan’s all the infrastructure built during the same era.
An alternative to repairing the old infrastructure is to retire it. This option is cheaper but incurs a social cost. It means giving up the convenience that the society has been enjoying for the past 50 years. It could be a reasonable choice. As the economy is shrinking, so is the demand for the infrastructure. For example, the number of vehicles in Japan has reached its peak in 2007 and is slowly going down since then. Can we take those ugly highways down, limit the inflow of cars to the city, and commute on the bike? Maybe.
Legacy to New Generation – Asset or Debt?
In addition to the Metro Rail, Chennai is undergoing other major construction projects including new airport terminals, highway extensions, commercial port expansions and numerous private constructions. Within a few years, the city will transform itself to a brand-new metropolis with concrete and steel. That is what the current society want.
In the coming 50 years, however, the society will change, while heat and humidity of Chennai crack into the concrete and CO2 of the traffic grows rust on the steel beam. If you can fast-forward the 50 years, what you will find is a matured society and tired infrastructure. The public interest would be no longer in the expansion of the infrastructure. Any metrics to measure the economic development of the country will have become close to 100% already while any metric to measure the economic growth of the country will have become close to 0% (if not negative.)
The governor in 2062 will breathe a big sigh after receiving a cost estimation to repair the old Chennai Metro Rail.
Bridging the Gap
Obviously, there is a wide and deep gap over the 50 years. Since the current economic wealth of today’s developed countries was built on top of the past heavy development of the social infrastructure, it is unfair to blame at the ones trying to catch up. As you see at any global economic forum, like World Economic Forum or G20, the agenda for the matured societies is quite different from the one for the growing countries.
How can we bridge this gap? What the current globalized economy can offer is to share the lessons learned by the countries which are dealing with the 50 years old legacy, like Japan: the best practices of designing, building, maintaining, repairing, and retiring the infrastructure legacy for the next generations. These lessons would be exactly what the Chennaians in 2062 would provide to those in 2012.
‘We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children’ by David Brower